A friend of mine recently contacted me and asked for me to send an email to my congressional representatives in support of the Chinook Indian People’s struggle to obtain official U. S. Government recognition of that People as a tribe. This seemed very odd to me. A search on the internet shows that the Chinook tribe and Chinookan culture has existed for many centuries, and it is absurd to me that a people who have existed for centuries and continue to exist today must apply to the federal government for official recognition that they do, in fact, exist, but so it seems to be. I assured my friend that I would do as he asked, but before doing so I decided that I must first learn a little about the situation which he brought to my attention. True to my quest I have learned just that – a little.
The Chinook people and all other Native American tribes who are requesting federal recognition are fighting an uphill battle. The effort to destroy American Indian nations reached its height with the Dawes Act of 1877, which sought to achieve six goals, according to Wikipedia, which were: 1. Breaking up of tribes as social units; 2. Encouraging individual initiatives; 3. Furthering the progress of native farmers; 4. Reducing the cost of Native administration; 5. Securing parts of the reservations as Indian land. and; 6. Opening the remainder of the land to White settlers for profit. The Dawes Act was magnificently successful in goal number six, with Indian land decreasing from 138 million acres in 1884 to 48 million acres in 1934. Subsequent adjustments to that Act were increasingly successful in separating the Native American population of North America from their land until now native Americans are shunted off mostly to remote, barren and impoverished corners of a land which once was theirs.
Now I will fast forward to today. Native Americans still occupy some of the poorest and most desolate land in the country, but increasing self-awareness on the part of Native Americans and a growing understanding of how to navigate the system is creating openings for the reestablishment of official recognition of tribes such as the Chinook, as well as efforts to improve services on the reservations of tribes already recognized. Additionally, understanding of the wrongs inflicted upon Native Americans is growing within the ranks of the American population at large, and sympathy for their cause grows among that group. I am an example of that. I cannot name one Native American ancestor in my genealogy, although it was rumored among my extended family that such an ancestor existed somewhere, as my mother would have said, “in the woodpile”. I and many other Americans of European and other descent recognize that a raw deal has been given to Native Americans; that while America was being torn apart by a Civil War which was largely about ending slavery, genocide was still being officially waged against Native Americans. We understand the impulse by which many Native Americans just wish that “Whitey” would go home. Whitey can’t help with that however. We have no other “home” to go to. This is our home. But we believe that we can share. We can live together as neighbors, even brothers, recognizing each other’s existence, value, and place in our own story. We have to give something back, but we can do that and still prosper and be good neighbors.
But not everybody sees it that way. In the Congress of the United States the war against Native Americans goes on unabated, and it is a rare example of bipartisanship. Don Young, a Republican from Alaska, sits on the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native affairs. On that committee he has worked consistently to oppose extending recognition to any tribes currently on the outside looking in. Young has declared that he has no intention of allowing Native American groups such as the Chinook Tribe to be granted the dignity of being called what they actually are: a distinct cultural group, separate from all others.
Young is far from alone in this anti-Native cause. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut cut his political eye teeth opposing sovereignty of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe and has continued to campaign tirelessly to de-recognize Native American tribes at every opportunity. Blumenthal is possibly the most powerful and dangerous foe to native Americans in government today. Recent attempts by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to actually serve the interests of Native Americans has animated Blumenthal, Young and other like minded politicians to pull the levers of power, openly and covertly, to engineer the worst possible outcomes for Native Americans.
So what can I do about this? I’m a sixty seven year old white guy with absolutely no political clout other than my voice, my blog, and my access to the email addresses of my federal and state representatives. Therefore, that is the power that I will exert. I am telling you of this, dear reader, because I care about those who have suffered injustice. I have told my representatives because they have to know how i feel, whether they care how I feel or not.
And I tell everyone who will listen to me because I have a voice and an obligation to use it. I invite you, reader, to do the same.